Teaching the Article

World War II looms large in the American imagination, and as the generation that fought it disappears, it is important for new generations to grapple with its meanings and legacies. World War II changed things—as all wars do. It moved people across the country and across the world, putting a gun or a riveter into unfamiliar hands. It engineered new technologies that could extinguish civilian populations from the air. It resuscitated the American economy, setting in motion economic growth that well outlasted the war. It scrambled racial and ethnic interactions, urban spaces, sexual politics, and personal relationships.

But certain patterns and structures yielded only somewhat to war's exigencies. Women, for example, were encouraged to join the civilian production effort, and many did so with enthusiasm. Yet their opportunities were limited by long-standing patterns of sex segregation and lower pay. Such was the case for African Americans, too, who because of racial discrimination in employment and housing only gradually gained access to the economic rewards of wartime production. Although World War II is popularly known as our last "good war," historians continue to push for a more multifaceted set of war stories that acknowledge some of these paradoxes.

Whatever the range and complexity of wartime experience, there is no doubt that the global conflict reached into every American community and touched every citizen in some way. Sixteen million Americans were mobilized into the armed forces, and millions more on the home front experienced the war in ways both mundane and extraordinary. For some, the war was a commute and a long workday; for others it was evacuation and cruel incarceration. Such diverse experiences have been chronicled in countless popular and scholarly books and in movie and television epics. Relatively little, however, has been written about what happened after the guns fell silent and factories began to make blenders instead of bombers. The story of "our boys" returning triumphantly home has been so much a part of our national lore since the end of World War II that we may think we already know this history. But, in fact, compared to what we know about the war, we know relatively little about the peace. Our popular memories move quickly from the victory parades to the well-appointed suburban family homes. What do we really know, for example, about the sailor and nurse in that iconic Life photo after they untangled themselves from their kiss and faced what came next?

"Demobilization" and "reconversion," as government planners called it, involved dismantling all the economic, political, and cultural institutions and practices that had sustained the war and converting them to serve peacetime purposes. Just as citizens had been drawn into war making, so would they play an important role in the shift to peace. As citizens would find out, although making peace was certainly easier than making war, it too demanded resolve, community, enterprise, and hope. For peace was not an event but a process, a series of life transitions and political struggles in pursuit of material rewards, such as affordable housing and a good job, and emotional intangibles, such as family togetherness, leisure time, and the assurance that better times were ahead. For the hundreds of thousands who had migrated to cities, peacetime did not immediately ease all of war's daily burdens, and in some cases, it introduced new tensions. During the war, American cities had been heralded as the great "arsenal of democracy," but the war's human and industrial demands strained cities—some, such as Detroit and Los Angeles to the point of violence. When the war ended, urban residents remained hopeful that political leaders would fulfill their promises that patriotism and production would deliver the American people from fear and want. As the historian George Lipsitz has said, "the turmoil and tumult of the postwar period can be read as a battle over those promises in virtually every area of life and culture in the United States." This unit will take students into the North Side neighborhoods of postwar Chicago to understand how city dwellers struggled to realize those promises. Here, human bodies, personal aspirations, and political agendas all collided, making the city neighborhood an ideal site for exploring demobilization's urban social history. Students will meet a variety of Chicago's working people—returning veterans, housewives, newlyweds, young singles, and aging pensioners—as they confronted the challenges of tearing down a war, so to speak, and rebuilding something in its place. From inside Chicago's apartment housing, students can glimpse the daily grind of demobilization—the myriad private adjustments and public grievances that vexed city residents as they fought for the spoils of war. What did peace feel like in the industrial cities that had dedicated their machinery and humanity to the production of violence? What were the networks, negotiations, and transactions that went into finding good housing? As people rebuilt families, bank accounts, and social networks, what did they expect of one another, of their local officials, and of their national leaders? This unit will enable students to look for answers to those larger questions through an inspection of Chicago's local circumstances.

Anchoring the national history of demobilization in an urban locale reveals that the shift from war to peace was fraught with conflict between different classes of urbanites and between citizens and their federal government. On Chicago's Near North Side, apartment owners, building managers, and tenants all aspired to the long-promised postwar abundance, but they clashed in their views of how to achieve that bounty. Working-class tenants were aspiring homeowners, and they argued that only low rents would let them save to purchase their postwar dream houses. Owners felt entitled to raise rent after years of economic depression and the advent of wartime rent controls in 1942. Building managers were caught between owners' demands to keep maintenance costs low and tenants' cries of intolerable living conditions. All felt they had sacrificed, and so they pursued their dreams of the postwar good life with tenacity and the conviction that their particular causes were righteous. Members of each group believed that the federal government was obliged to provide a safety net as they tried to reestablish themselves, although here, too, divergent views on the proper scale of government intervention animated their quarrels.

Ultimately, the local skirmishes over housing raise broader questions about the individual pursuit of affluence, urban class conflict, popular expectations of government, and the meanings of sacrifice—especially in relation to war. Americans in the late forties and early fifties faced those questions wherever they confronted limitations on their high hopes their lives would get easier after the war. Their stubborn attempts to work out solutions well after the fighting stopped remind us of the reach and totality of war as a human experience. Indeed, the central dilemmas raised by demobilization's bread-and-butter housing conflicts have not disappeared. If we look closely, we can see traces of them in contemporary debates about affordable housing, urban reform, tax codes, welfare policy, disaster recovery, and even the current war on terror, when politicians and citizens debate the meanings of patriotism and sacrifice. The following four exercises invite a new generation to consider the weighty issues of an older generation through a virtual tour of Chicago's North Side in war's aftermath.